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Grateful and humble hearts

Liturgically, November is the month during which we are especially mindful of death — ours and that of the people who have gone before us. We pray for the dead, bringing them before the throne of the Lord and asking that the gates of heaven be opened for them. And we remember that we, too, will die one day and should live accordingly.

November is also the month in which the whole country seems to focus — even if for just a day — on being grateful. We set aside a weekend (at least) to pause and give thanks for our many blessings. November is about humility. Both thankfulness and holy preparedness for death find their firmest foundation in that virtue.

Gratitude is rooted in humility, which enables us to have a teachable spirit. With humility, we look at every interaction with another person as a chance to learn something, instead of an opportunity to criticize, compete or condemn. Humility recognizes that without God we are nothing, and everything good in us is God at work in us. It opens us to genuine improvement of ourselves and the expectation that other people also bear the image of God and can be used and improved by the Holy Spirit.

Humility is counter-cultural. In a society that prizes the individual, sees improvement as “self-help” and applauds stepping on other people to climb the corporate ladder, humility is a sign of weakness. In truth, it’s a sign of spiritual maturity. The ability to recognize that we are only here on this earth by the grace of God and that we will stand before the throne of God to determine our eternity definitely changes the way we look at ourselves and at other people. Instead of the crippling tendency to find fault in ourselves and in others, humility invites us to notice the good; indeed, it asks us to notice the presence of God.

Gratitude happens when a humble heart spills over. Complaining, criticizing and ungratefulness are rooted in pride. A person crippled by pride is someone so wrapped up in himself that he is prone to miss the evidence of grace in the every day, instead defaulting to picking apart people and circumstances in a quest for human perfection. Humility recognizes that we are here on earth for a short time so that God might dwell in us. Everything we have here — including the very fact that we are here — is his gift for which we should be very grateful. Scripture tells us that God wants us to humble ourselves before him so that he can pour himself into us abundantly.

“God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us. But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God” (Jas 4:5-7).

When we humble ourselves, we see other people differently; we see the whole world differently. We become grateful for who they are, who we are and the life we’ve been given. Instead of being wrapped up in ourselves, we allow Christ to envelop us. We recognize that everything we have is more than we deserve, and that no one here on earth owes us anything. Humility reminds us that we are not entitled to a life of ease or efficiency. Instead, with humility, we are grateful for the smallest of kindnesses because we know that it is only by God’s grace that there is goodness in our lives.

Humility allows us to learn, to seek holiness, to take failure in stride, while ever mindful that we will one day die and all that we do here is a preparation to live with God forever. With humility we cooperate with grace and we cooperate with one another. We recognize that, ultimately, we are not competitors, but that the true goal is reaching heaven together. Perhaps the real question to ask when we’re frustrated by the failures and faults of one another is, “How can I help her get to heaven?” It’s the question that reframes human arguments.

Rarely will the answer to that question be the response that pride would have suggested. Remembering that we will all die one day changes the focus. First, it makes us humble because we recognize that we, too, are sinners entirely reliant on God’s mercy. Then, it clarifies the purpose of human interaction —whether for praise or admonishment or anything in between. We’re all just here to help each other get to heaven and to serve each other with grateful and humble hearts.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019